Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Breaking a bond

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I will get right to the point: It is becoming way too easy to lock people up. Our jails and prisons are overcrowded. Our criminal justice system is bursting at the seams. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Arkansas leads the pack for the highest number of children with an incarcerated parent. You'd think we would be looking for ways to help these children visit their parents, but, instead, many of our jails are making it harder and harder for incarcerated parents to maintain a bond with their families.

The Benton County sheriff recently announced a new policy to do away with in-person visits at the Benton County Jail, where inmates and visitors are separated by glass, and substitute that with a pay-per-minute remote video visitation system. After some outcry about the costs, the sheriff announced there would be a free terminal at the jail.

Benton County is not the first to do away with in-person visits. Washington County went to video visitation only when the jail opened in 2005. It's a sorry system. Jails are built of concrete and steel. There is often an unwritten code that requires toughness and frowns upon displays of emotion. They are not places designed to foster humanity. That's why taking away the in-person visits is cruel and short-sighted. It hurts the incarcerated individual and the visiting family, especially the children. It's a mistake to believe that just because someone is incarcerated, he or she is a bad parent. What many seem to forget is that our county jails are full of people who are disproportionately poor, have not been convicted of a crime, and are only incarcerated because they can't afford to make bail.

Video visitation is not completely bad. It can help families who cannot travel stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. It is a nice supplement to in-person visitation, but should never be a substitute. It is impersonal. Sometimes it is hard to hear and see the person on the other end. It takes away an important human connection to the outside world. Most of the inmates in the county jail will be released at some point. One of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to help families maintain strong bonds. Families provide stability upon release. Human contact helps prevent inmates from being institutionalized so they can better adapt upon release.

The move to video visitation is part of a larger and troubling trend to automate and streamline the criminal justice system. Video court is becoming more and more common and is now being used for individuals charged with felonies. Some probationers report checking in at kiosks instead of seeing an actual probation officer. Gone is the gravity of standing in front of a judge in a courtroom and receiving a sentence. Gone is the important face-to-face contact between a probation officer and probationer. The changes are being done in the name of safety and efficiency.

This flies in the face of our founding principles. Taking someone's liberty should be difficult. It should not be convenient for us as a people to deprive someone of his freedom. This automated, conveyor-belt style of justice should concern us all. In all the noise about the proper interpretations of the First and Second amendments, we've completely forgotten about the Fifth and the 14th. Due process requires a process. We should be wary of every single policy or law designed to ease that process. I understand the county budgets are strained. It requires a lot of money and officers to transport inmates to and from court and to facilitate in-person visitations. But this is a problem of our own making. We are locking too many people up for nonviolent, drug and financial offenses. We are overloading our probation officers with people who don't need supervision while those who do are not offered the attention or services they need to succeed. Our jails are full of poor people who cannot come up with the money to bond out. And now we are taking away in-person visits from county inmates and charging them to see their families. How will this help us in the long run?

Thank goodness Arkansas prisons still allow in-person visitations for most inmates. However, I'm afraid it is only a matter of time before some legislator or prison official decides to end the visits and allow yet another private company to profit off our inmates and their families. Progress is good. Progress that sacrifices liberty, family connections and lower recidivism rates for the sake of savings and convenience is not. Sure, video visitation and other measures designed to make it easier to lock people up will save some bucks, but at what cost to our children and our future?

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